#Hashtags: Conceptualizing Difference

#institutions #race #conceptualism #access #appropriation

A recent performance at Brown University by conceptual poet Kenneth Goldsmith has resurrected what had seemed to be a long-ago-settled debate. Goldsmith, whose poetic practice is based on appropriation, presented an adaptation of the autopsy report of Ferguson, Missouri, police shooting victim Michael Brown as a poetic reading during the Interrupt 3 arts festival in mid-March. The subsequent commentary has largely taken Goldsmith to task for what many perceive to have been a tasteless and implicitly racist work of art. As collateral damage, many of Goldsmith’s critics have been quick to dismiss the validity of conceptual or appropriation strategies as legitimate art practice, despite such forms having firmly established precedents throughout the past century. Furthermore, some have suggested that conceptualism is a mode of artistic practice that serves to reinforce white supremacy.

Michael Brown graduation photo.

Michael Brown. Graduation photo.

To what degree are these claims valid, and does Goldsmith’s effort have any legitimacy? From an emotional perspective, as a person of color in the United States, it is difficult not to take umbrage at the image of a white man, a published poet and Ivy League academic, appropriating the murdered body of a Black man for the benefit of a largely white audience that may be sympathetic but cannot empathize with the deceased. However, emotion is hardly the most productive filter through which to perceive conceptual art. Deliberately affectless, many conceptual strategies hinge on re-presentation rather than representation, and “treatment” rather than interpretation. Artistically, Goldsmith’s biggest failure is that he violates the tenets of conceptualism that dictate a text be either appropriated whole or subjected to a chance-based rather than choice-based editing process. Goldsmith does neither; instead he cherry-picks sections and replaces clinical terms with more digestible ones. Many of Goldsmith’s critics have called out his decision to end his reading at a description of the murdered Brown’s genitals, truncating the original report in order to close on a salacious detail that evokes memories of lynchings and castrations in the collective racial consciousness.

These alterations appear designed to engage the audience emotionally—a goal antithetical to most conceptual artists, who typically aim for detachment. Goldsmith himself coedited the anthology Against Expression to represent this kind of approach, so one would assume he understands the tenets. Why, then, violate the code of re-presentation in the treatment of this particular document? The more extreme among Goldsmith’s critics have argued that this is evidence of his support for a white supremacist culture, but more moderate voices acknowledge that it is more likely a case of implicit bias. Social-justice scholar Dr. Robin DiAngelo has coined the term “white fragility” to describe a phenomenon whereby white individuals who are conscious of racism and motivated by good intentions nonetheless impose themselves within a dialogue on race in overbearing ways, so threatened is their sense of centrality by a discourse that does not rely on them to exist. This concept helps to explain why Goldsmith, an advocate of appropriation without intervention, would be unable to treat the Brown autopsy without imposing his own voice in violation of conceptualist ethics.

Kenneth Goldsmith. Poetry Foundation profile photo.

Kenneth Goldsmith. Poetry Foundation profile photo.

What, then, of the charge that conceptualism itself is an artistic strategy that promotes white supremacy? One might be excused for believing it if “conceptual art” is defined by the overwhelmingly white and male canon of American artists lionized by institutions such as MoMA over the past several decades. On the other hand, prominent scholars including Thomas McEvilley and Terry Smith have identified a non-Western philosophical basis for the synthesis of idea and form that we have come to call conceptualism. For example, McEvilley articulates how conceptual formalism deviates from Cartesian mind–body duality, acknowledging the Buddhist doctrine of abhidharma that posits the mind as a sensing, as well as a thinking, organ.[1] This strain of thought gives rise to the Romantic philosophers, with their abiding interest in phenomenology, a means of understanding through experience above comprehension. Terry Smith acknowledges how avant-garde ideas that permeated the West in the 1960s can be found in contemporary art from Japan as early as the 1950s.[2] Although the proto-conceptual breakthrough period in Japan was short-lived, artists who witnessed these developments, including Nam June PaikYoko OnoOn Kawara, and Shigeko Kubota, were instrumental in their advancement in Europe and the United States in the following decades. A similar case has been made for proto-conceptual artists working in Latin America in the early 1960s.

Charles Gaines: Gridwork 1974-1989.  Installation view at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. February 8-May 24, 2015. Photography by Brian Forrest.

Charles Gaines. Gridwork 1974-1989; installation view at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, February 8-May 24, 2015. Photography by Brian Forrest.

Perhaps even more persuasive than these historical arguments are the words of artist Charles Gaines, whose work since the early 1970s has applied conceptual art strategies to an ongoing consideration of the implicit codes of seeing and differentiating that underpin our race-conscious society. Gaines is currently the subject of a historical survey, Gridwork (1974–1989), organized by the Studio Museum in Harlem and now on view at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. In a letter to leading conceptual artist and mentor Sol LeWitt, cited in the exhibition’s wall text, Gaines explains: “I use color not as an affective gesture, but as a code to establish difference.” Gaines addresses race in his work subtly, through abstracted, affectless, yet no less potent means.

Charles Gaines: Gridwork 1974-1989.  Installation view at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. February 8-May 24, 2015. Photography by Brian Forrest.

Charles Gaines. Gridwork 1974-1989; installation view at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, February 8-May 24, 2015. Photography by Brian Forrest.

Gaines devises systems designed to remove his artistic process from conscious choice such that self-expression is elided in favor of a more objective outcome. Discussing his work with artist Sam Durant at the Hammer earlier this month, Gaines explained that his practice is a struggle against “art as a subjective practice,” and that he seeks to avoid aesthetic decision-making because it privileges “the idea of beauty or pleasure as emerging from the site of the self or the ego.” Abandoning these Western values based in individualism and hierarchy, Gaines further described how his epiphany occurred when he turned away from the Western canon as a young man and began to investigate Muslim and Buddhist traditions of artistic practice, in which individual expression and emotional affect were secondary to systematic, mathematically derived formal investigations. This breakthrough was, in Gaines’ words, a means of responding to the “influence of non-Western ideas but […] to think about them within the language I have competency in.” Conceptualism here becomes a strategy for critiquing white supremacy, albeit one that differs significantly from the overtly racialized representational art of Gaines’ peers in the Black Arts Movement.

Charles Gaines: Gridwork 1974-1989.  Installation view at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. February 8-May 24, 2015. Photography by Brian Forrest.

Charles Gaines. Gridwork 1974-1989; installation view at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; February 8-May 24, 2015. Photography by Brian Forrest.

While artists of color have played a substantial role in the advancement of conceptual art from its origins until the present day, it remains the case that the institutional framework for art is defined by the values of racial hierarchy. As Robin DiAngelo explains, white Euro Americans “have organized society to reproduce and reinforce our racial interests and perspectives.” As such, there can be no neutral territory for an institutionalized presentation on questions of race and racism, as in the case of Goldsmith’s reading. Host institution Brown University has historical connections to the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and represents the intellectual and material wealth of a nation that was built on the forced labor of a Black underclass. In this context, the spectacle of a white poet presenting the murdered body of a Black man cannot be assumed to be affectless or dispassionate. DiAngelo advises that white allies seeking to improve their comprehension of racially fraught subjects attempt “to understand the racial realities of people of color through authentic interaction rather than through the media or unequal relationships” and to take “action to address our own racism, the racism of other whites, and the racism embedded in our institutions.”[3] Goldsmith may genuinely have believed that by reading his poem he was doing the latter: forcing a white audience in a white institutional context to acknowledge the horror of police brutality committed daily against Black men. Unfortunately his inability to do the former—to seek understanding through authentic interaction rather than a mediated, unequal relationship—appears to have been his undoing. DiAngelo correctly points out that racial discrimination is maintained through social systems rather than individual actions. We would be remiss to allow Goldsmith’s highly public failure to dissuade us from using systems-based art and theory as tools to dismantle structures of oppression.

Charles Gaines: Gridwork (1974–1989) is on view at the Hammer Museum through May 24, 2015.

#Hashtags is a series exploring the intersection of art, social issues, and global politics.


[1] Thomas McEvilley, The Triumph of Anti-Art (Kingston, NY: McPherson & Co., 2005), 79.

[2] Terry Smith, Contemporary Art: World Currents (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, 2011), 20.

[3] Robin DiAngelo, “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard to Talk to White People About Racism,” The Good Men Project (April 9, 2015).